Starring Mickey Rourke in arguably his greatest ever role, alongside the always-superb Robert De Niro, Angel Heart is a gripping psychological horror film that Empire magazine describes as being “a diabolical treat.”
Following Rourke’s private detective Harry Angel as he is hired by De Niro’s Louis Cyphre to track down a famous singer, Angel Heart takes a devilish twist when Angel discovers the truth behind his contract. Below are some things you might not have known about this controversial film.
20. It’s based on a 1978 horror novel called Falling Angel
Angel Heart is based on the 1978 novel Falling Angel, written by the American novelist and screenwriter William Hjortsberg. Born in New York in 1941, Hjortsberg was educated at Yale and enjoyed success writing short stories, novels and magazine articles. Although he wrote Falling Angel as a novel, he originally conceived the work as a screenplay.
Beyond this, Hjortsberg’s best-known work in film is the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s 1985 fantasy film Legend, starring a young Tom Cruise. Hjortsberg would go on to publish several more novels and write a number of screenplays (which unfortunately were never produced) before he passed away in 2017, aged 76.
19. Bill Cosby was enraged over Lisa Bonet’s role being ‘too sexual’
Angel Heart co-stars Lisa Bonet, in what was the very first film role. At the time Bonet was 18 and famed for her role on TV’s The Cosby Show. However, once the film was released, Bill Cosby (still a respected figure at the time, decades before details of his sexual misconduct became public knowledge) was far less happy with Bonet’s appearance as Epiphany Proudfoot.
Cosby openly criticised Angel Heart, calling it “a movie made by white America that cast a black girl, gave her voodoo things to do and have sex.” However, at the same time Cosby stressed that he hadn’t actually seen the film, claiming “it doesn’t offer my appetite anything.” The same year Angel Heart came out, 1987, Bonet would leave The Cosby Show for spin-off series A Different World.
18. The film sparked a long-standing feud between Robert De Niro and Mickey Rourke
Robert De Niro and Mickey Rourke worked together for the first and last time on Angel Heart, and neither of them has had many kind words for the other in the aftermath. It has been reported that this stems from De Niro refusing to talk to Rourke off-camera, feeling this would be to the detriment of their scenes together.
Rourke apparently took this personally, and has never been shy of publicly bad-mouthing De Niro in the years since. This bad blood between the actors endures to this day, as in 2019 Rourke accused De Niro of blocking him from taking a role in Martin Scorsese’s film The Irishman. Rourke said of De Niro, “I don’t look up to him no more; I look through him.”
17. Robert De Niro was originally set to play Harry Angel, with Marlon Brando as Cyphre
When Alan Parker was offered Angel Heart, he was the third director to be attached to the project after John Frankenheimer (French Connection II) and Dick Richards (Farewell, My Lovely). Along the way, a number of different actors were considered for the key roles of Harry Angel and Louis Cyphre.
Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman had already been considered for Harry Angel; Parker went on to offer the part to Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. When De Niro was considered for Angel, Marlon Brando was also approached about playing Cyphre; however, when De Niro expressed greater interest in the smaller antagonist role, this prompted a rethink.
16. Director Alan Parker was scared of Robert De Niro
It probably won’t be news to many readers that Robert De Niro is widely renowned as one of the greatest film actors of all time, so director Alan Parker may have been asking for trouble in casting the Raging Bull Oscar-winner as the sinister Louis Cyphere. The method actor was so deeply into character that the director was genuinely intimidated by him.
Parker recalled having a distant, somewhat stilted relationship with De Niro from early on, as in initial meetings the actor “would bombard me with questions examining every dot and comma of my script.” Rather than try to give direction to such a revered figure, Parker opted to allow De Niro to essentially “direct himself” during the filming process.
15. Studio executives wanted the film to have a happy ending
William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel was met with enthusiastic reviews, not least a glowing recommendation from Stephen King, who declared it “a terrific book – what might have happened if Raymond Chandler had written The Exorcist.” At the time, an endorsement from King was usually enough to make-or-break any new horror novel, or movie.
However, despite the acclaim – and the interest from such powerful figures as Robert Redford and Robert Evans – the studios balked at Falling Angel. Hjortsberg recalls, “even with [Redford] behind the script, studio executives weren’t interested. ‘Why can’t it have a happy ending?’ every bigshot demanded.” It was thanks to this that the film adaptation struggled to get off the ground for the best part of a decade.
14. The dance choreographer from Fame worked with Lisa Bonet on the Voodoo ritual
Prior to Angel Heart, one of Alan Parker’s biggest hits was musical drama Fame. The director brought back one of his collaborators from Fame to work on one of Angel Heart’s key sequences: dance choreographer Louis Falco, who worked with Lisa Bonet on the Voodoo ritual, in which the frenzied Epiphany sacrifices a chicken.
According to Parker’s production diary, Falco had extensively researched real voodoo practices from Haiti, and based the sequence closely on this. Eerily, Parker also noted that the slate number on the clapper board when they shot the scene was, by total coincidence, 666 – the devil’s number.
13. Parker was forced to remove ten seconds of the controversial sex scene
Angel Heart ran into difficulty with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over the sex scene between Bonet and Mickey Rourke. The nightmarish sequence, which ultimately sees the couple showered in blood, was considered too extreme for the desired R-rating. Mere weeks before the film was due to open, distributor Tri-Star Pictures cut 10 seconds to avoid an X-rating.
Director Alan Parker was not happy with being forced to make these changes, which he later dismissed as “a wasteful, pointless and expensive exercise.” Parker’s original, uncut version of the film was later released on home video, however, and this cut is now widely available on DVD and Blu-ray.
12. Mickey Rourke turned down Platoon in order to play Harry Angel
The career history of Mickey Rourke is littered with near-misses, as the actor had an unfortunate tendency to say no to movies which wound up being massive hits. One of these was Platoon, director Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Vietnam war drama which proved a huge hit on release in December 1986.
Rourke passed on that film, opting instead to do Angel Heart – and, while that certainly wasn’t a mistake on a creative level, it didn’t help the actor much commercially. Other big 80s hits Rourke was reportedly offered but turned down include Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, The Untouchables and Rain Man.
11. One actress was swept out to sea during filming
Many actors get nervous about things going wrong on their first day of shooting, but things were considerably worse for actress Shirley Stoler. Whilst shooting her first scene on the Coney Island waterfront, Parker recalls Stoler was “rather inelegantly knocked off her feet by an abnormally high Atlantic wave halfway through her first speech and promptly disappeared into the icy waters.”
Once she was safely back on land, the director said that “no amount of British charm on my part, nor the kiss of life from the nurse and brandies from the prop man, could coax her back into the water for Take 2.” The actress had to be replaced with her stand-in Judith Drake, whom Parker later admitted was better suited to the role anyway.
10. De Niro and Rourke’s scenes were shot with a camera running on each actor simultaneously
Oftentimes when scenes of dialogue are shot featuring two actors, each actor will have to deliver the lines to camera one at a time. However, when it came to shoot Mickey Rourke’s scenes with Robert De Niro on Angel Heart, Alan Parker opted for a different approach. The director recalled that “breaking with my normal shooting practice, I shot with two cameras simultaneously in opposite directions.”
This, Parker said, ensured that “should the two of them begin to improvise or go off at a tangent, provoking in the other an action or reaction, a moment’s magic that one inspired in the other would be captured on film.” Parker likened this to “a couple of prize-fighters testing one another out as they slowly encircled one another.”
9. The film was a big influence on Memento
Even if it didn’t win over too many people at first, Angel Heart was won some notable admirers over the years. One particularly noteworthy fan of the film is Christopher Nolan, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of modern times. The director of Inception, Tenet and the Dark Knight trilogy has singled out Angel Heart as influential on his work.
In particular, Nolan said that he drew heavily on Angel Heart on his breakthrough movie, 2000’s Memento. “Alan Parker films such as Angel Heart and The Wall… were a big influence,” Nolan was quoted as saying. The British filmmaker was particularly struck by Parker’s use of “very interesting editing techniques such as a fractured narrative.”
8. The original story took place entirely in New York
The first proposed adaptations of Falling Angel adhered very closely to William Hjortsberg’s novel. However, when Alan Parker took on the project he opted to make some fairly significant deviations. Most notably, Hjortsberg’s original story took place entirely in New York City, where some of the film takes place.
However, Parker decided it would be interesting and appropriate to move some of the action to New Orleans, because of the voodoo themes. Hjortsberg gave his approval to these changes, admitting that he had initially considered settling the novel in New Orleans. The other significant change Parker made was to use the title Angel Heart rather than Falling Angel, to help the film stand apart from its source material.
7. 1,400 people showed up to an open casting call for the film
While Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro were confirmed for the lead roles in Angel Heart, there were many smaller parts to fill. Director Alan Parker wrote that he held an open casting call for the film in New York City. The key difference when a casting call is marked ‘open’ is that literally anyone can attend, regardless of whether they have experience or an agent.
Unsurprisingly, there was enormous interest, with over 1,400 people turning up. Of these, Parker himself saw around 600 with whom he “read a short scene.” While Parker stresses that such casting calls rarely locate some major unknown talents, one key cast member – Elizabeth Whitcraft, who appears in the film as Connie – was found from this casting call.
6. It was Mickey Rourke’s idea to cast Charlotte Rampling
Director Alan Parker had particular difficulty in finding the right actress for the key supporting role of Margaret Krusemark. The director wrote, “although it’s a small part in the film, the character is omnipresent in the dialogue and she had to have the right balance of class and eccentricity.” Mickey Rourke himself suggested Charlotte Rampling.
The British actress had been working prominently in theatre, film and television since the 1960s. Parker admitted he’d “always admired her,” so both men were pleased when Rampling accepted the role. Rampling has continued to work extensively in the years since, and was Oscar-nominated in 2016 for her performance in 45 Years.
5. It opened in theatres on the same day as Lethal Weapon – and tanked
With hindsight, studio Tri-Star Pictures may have picked the wrong day to release Angel Heart into cinemas. The film hit screens in the USA on the 6th of March 1987 – the very same day that Warner Bros had picked for another R-rated feature. That Warners release was Lethal Weapon, the buddy cop action-thriller starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
Lethal Weapon went straight to the top of the box office charts, earning $6.8 million. Angel Heart, meanwhile, came in at number four, behind A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and recent Oscar-winner Platoon (which Mickey Rourke had turned down). Lethal Weapon wound up one of the top ten box office hits of 1987, and would later spawn three sequels and a TV spin-off.
4. Critics disliked the film on release
Angel Heart has, in recent years, been re-assessed as an underrated classic – but it was a different story back in 1987. The film made $17.2 million at the box office in the United States, which fell just shy of its $18 million production budget, not even accounting for marketing costs. And it wasn’t just audiences who failed to connect with Angel Heart, as on the whole the critics weren’t impressed either.
Influential New York Times critic Pauline Kael was particularly scathing of Angel Heart, writing, “There’s no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible.” One of the few critics at the time to have much nice to say about Angel Heart was Roger Ebert, who gave it his trademark thumbs up, although his partner Gene Siskel gave it a thumbs down.
3. Follow-up novel Angel’s Inferno was published in 2020
Given that both novelist William Hjortsberg and filmmaker Alan Parker have since died, fans should have given up all hope of any continuation of the story from its creators. However, Hjortsberg had in fact penned a sequel to Falling Angel before his passing in 2017, entitled Angel’s Inferno, which was posthumously published on October 31st 2020.
The book’s official synopsis (which says the book is both a sequel, but also accessible to new readers) tells us that Angel’s Inferno will “[takes] readers on a macabre journey into the occult, from mid-fifties New York to Paris to the Vatican, as private investigator Harry Angel, seeking both answers about his true identity and revenge, hunts down Satan himself.”
2. The film’s big twist is foreshadowed by the character names
If you’ve yet to watch Angel Heart then you might want to skip this fact as there’s a pretty big spoiler coming up… still, you don’t need to look too closely at the name of Robert De Niro’s character to realise the truth about him. Go ahead, say ‘Louis Cyphre’ fairly quickly and you’ll probably understand what we’re talking about. If you’re still not sure, try shortening his first name.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that Rourke’s private investigator anti-hero is named Harry Angel. That’s right – De Niro’s character is really the Devil, and he’s there for the immortal soul of Rourke’s Harry. This twist of supernatural horror in what initially seems a fairly grounded detective story is a big part of what makes Angel Heart so special – although not everyone thought so at the time.
1. A planned remake is stuck in development hell
After the commercially successful remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003 and Dawn of the Dead in 2004, horror remake fever caught on like wildfire. It was hardly surprising, then, that by 2008 an Angel Heart remake was on the cards, the rights having been snapped up by producer Michael De Luca.
De Luca declared they would be going back to the original novel Falling Angel, which he hailed as “a great blend of genres,” noting its “compelling, universal themes” and “literary and commercial appeal.” However, little has been heard on the matter since – so it seems the remake is, if you’ll excuse the pun, stuck in development hell.